Canadian Whisky’s Top End



For many years, Canadian whisky was what one writer has called a compromise spirit, meaning it did not achieve the quality of the single malt or bourbon category, but had a ready market due to its versatility (especially for mixing) and price.

The reason for this has a complex historical and technological background, but to summarize, Canadian whisky is typically a blend. A blend means, most of it is a vodka-like, neutral alcohol (made from grain), but aged in wood for at least three years. This aging imparts a degree of “whisky” flavour, but the neutrality of the spirit when young means it can never mature in the way a traditional whisky would. The traditional types were and are made in pot stills. The more industrial and modern column still is used to make the neutral type but it can also be used to make the older type. It is not the type of still which counts but the type of whisky you want to make.

Using a little of this traditional whisky (5%-10%) to “flavour” a much larger amount of aged neutral spirit became the Canadian style. Often too, sherry or sugar of some kind is added to round out the whisky’s flavour or give it a browner tint.

For almost 60 years, this became the only style you could buy in Canada that was produced here. To drink straight whisky – in effect the flavouring whisky uncut – you had to buy U.S. bourbon or single malt whisky. The Canadian distillers made the straight type, but used it only for blending. In America and Scotland, straight whiskeys were also used for blending – Seagram 7 Crown, Cutty Sark, say – but the straights – the original type – were never taken off the market as in Canada.

With the rise of the whisky renaissance, Canadian distillers have started to release their straight whiskies uncut or produce blends with more straight whiskey than in the past. In either case, the flavour result will be much more impactful than the classic restrained Canadian blend such as Seagram V.O. or Alberta Premium.

Dark Horse, Lot 40, Wiser’s Legacy, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye, Seagram Northern Harvest, all fall in the new category, they are very flavourful from being 100% straight or blends in which a high percentage of straight appears. Most of them are, for the straight element, rather young in palate. Even when aged seemingly long (7-10 years), account must be taken of the fact that Canadian distillers, with some exceptions, age their whiskeys in reused oak barrels vs. the new charred barrels used by U.S. bourbon distillers. The reused barrel is perfectly good to age whisky – that is what the Scots use for their famous malts – but it takes a long time for straight whisky to acquire its maximum quality in such wood.

Putting it a different way, few people today would rate a single malt very high which isn’t at least 10 years old and often the benchmark starts from 12. Yet most Canadian straights produced for blending are much less aged than that. The reason is partly cost but also, a younger whisky will make more flavour impact on a large amount of near-neutral spirit than an old, well-modulated spirit. On its own, it may taste, as some of the new releases do, piney/congeneric, but that can be a plus for blending.

This is why the whisky pictured was of such interest to me, not so much the jazz about sour mash, but the fact it is a bourbon mash, and aged 14 years. Bourbon mash means:

i) distilled and entered in barrel in the territory traditional for bourbon, under 80% abv and 62.5% abv, respectively, and

ii) made from a mash of >50% corn plus rye and barley malt.

Last Barrels was aged in all-reused barrels, and bourbon by U.S. law is aged in new charred barrels. However, the 14 year period for which Last Barrels was matured more or less equates in palate to what you would get with half that time in new charred wood. The new charred barrel has a “red layer” (just under the black char layer) which imparts caramelized wood sugars to the bourbon. It is said to be exhausted after one fill of bourbon, but while it will take longer, you will ultimately get similar rich, wood sugar qualities in the whisky as any good malt will show.

Last Barrels tastes very much like a high quality bourbon. I doubt people would place it as “Canadian” if included in a blind bourbon tasting. But it is Canadian because it was made here and qualifies as Canadian whisky under our broad definition. The important thing to appreciate is, the straight whiskeys used in Canada for blending always were U.S., Scots, or Irish-type straight whiskeys. We never had a straight style of our own, we had a blended style of our own.

Canadian distillers should release more whiskies like Last Barrels. Their straight character – I use the term not in the American technical sense but in a broader, international one – lends an inimitable traditional whisky character. You can age the typical Canadian blend until the cows come home, and some distillers do, but more wood doesn’t equal more whisky quality, it just means more wood. Yes, other things happen too with aging any spirit.

But from a palate standpoint, there is no substitute for genuine whisky meaning in particular whisky distilled under 80% abv as all malt is, all bourbon is, all straight rye is.  (All brandy and tequila too, by the way). This is due to its complex chemical composition which results from low proof off the still vs. the nearly pure ethanol-and-water of spirit distilled at 95% pure alcohol.

The blends are all very well to be sure, they can be sold at a reasonable price – generally half or less what Last Barrels costs – and are good for mixing. But as mentioned, they cannot be compared in palate to the original straight whiskies.

Pink Gin

“On the West India Station”


One of the great gin drinks is the simplest: pink gin, or gin and bitters. Generally water and ice are added, but are optional and not additional ingredients anyway, they are dilutions.

I will let Frederick Martin speak, who wrote the essential An Encyclopedia Of Drinks And Drinking. This very useful and entertaining book had an unlikely publisher, Coles, generally known in Canada for producing resumes of literary works.

“Coles Notes” has been a student standby in Canada for generations. Somehow this house published the book by Martin, an ex- British Army officer who had long been in the wine and spirits trade. The copyright is 1978 but internal clues suggest the text was written in the late 1960s. A left field choice for Coles, but one I’m glad it made.

After first explaining that gin was a proletarian drink disdained by the merchant classes and gentry, Martin sets out the slow but steady way gin crossed social barriers. One reason was the following:

Gin was taken up by the Royal Navy, whose prestige was colossal. We do not know quite when officers started drinking pink gin. “Bitters” were originally a medicine, a specific for sundry fevers such as the Royal Navy might encounter on the West Indian station. Since Plymouth was, and is, a distilling centre, it is reasonable to assume that a puncheon of gin found its way aboard a man-of-war and that an officer of an experimental turn of mind tried taking his bitters with gin, thus inventing a drink destined to go far outside service circles.


As to how to make the pink gin Martin is authoritative:

The correct way to make it is to put four or five dashes of Angostura bitters in a suitable glass and shake out all but that which clings to the surface (unless you wish the drink to be specially aromatic). Using ice cubes, or not, to taste, pour in the gin, adding soda or plain water to individual liking. There is a gimmick version in which the bitters are fired.

As an ideal brand Martin specifies the classic Plymouth gin – the sole surviving example of a regional English style that was associated with Devon’s famous port. “Plymouth” was said to be a little more flavourful than London Dry. Martin assures us though that any London gin is likely to be as good.

I always liked Beefeater: bone-dry, good juniper notes, very pure. Never really went for Bombay and Hendricks. Some brands, especially the cheapest, seem to stint on the “botanical” flavourings and also their alcohol base sometimes is too harsh for me.

I just bought the venerable Gilbey’s which is similar to Beefeater but a touch sweeter with more orange notes I think.  Of course there has been a gin boom in recent years with many craft and newer big-company iterations, so the choice is enviable. However, the gin should not be too forward in taste as this can clash with the bitters.

Note re second image above: The painting shown is in the public domain, a fine 18th century work by English marine painter Peter Monamy. For source and further details, see here. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Note added July 26, 2019: see my Comment added today to an earlier post of mine on Martin’s book, regarding the well-known, late U.K. drinks writer John Doxat. I discuss there whether Doxat in fact authored Martin’s book and “Frederick Martin” is a nom de plume.



Krausmann Restaurants in Montreal – Part III


Famous for food




– From a 1939 tourist brochure in Montreal

In the last two posts I discussed the history of two restaurants with a German theme in Montreal operated by two brothers, John and William Krausmann. They hailed from Elora, Ontario but had a Germanic heritage that was reflected in the food and drinks served. John had importation rights for some prestige German and Bohemian beers including Kulmbacher and what is now called Pilsner Urquell. John’s restaurant, founded 1901, was in the financial district. It prospered for a generation but appears not to have survived, or for long, his death in 1929.

William’s Lorraine Cafe, founded in 1922, continued in business into the 1980s, changing location at least once. Since 1990, Brisket, a restaurant which offers a diverse, “Montreal” menu, operates on the last site occupied by Kraussman’s on Beaver Hall Hill.*

Brisket continues the Krausmann legacy in a modest way by including “Salon Krausmann” in its full name and also, it features the pickled pork hock dish which was a specialty of the old Krausmann restaurants.

I had thought perhaps Krausmann family descendants were involved with the Krausmann business at least until the Brisket era. This appears not so, due to a surprising twist in the history: by 1927, Krausmann’s Lorraine Cafe had been sold to Traymore Limited, a Canadian restaurant chain comprising (in that year) five cafeterias. You see in this 1927 prospectus for an issue of convertible preference shares that Krausmann Lorraine Cafe is listed as owned by Traymore. Traymore also listed the restaurant among its group on postcards showing the company locations.

traymore-cafeteriafrSince William had health problems by the mid-1920s, it makes sense that he decided to sell. It appears he had no involvement in Traymore management but may have worked at the Lorraine Cafe for a time in an employed capacity. His brother John did not sell his Krausmann’s to Traymore as far as I know, but with John’s death in 1929 that branch seems to have ended its activity.

Traymore Limited was an early restaurant chain, indeed a public company founded before WW I in Toronto. By the late 1930s, some of its locations had gone under due no doubt to the Depression. But the flagship cafeterias under the Traymore name in Toronto and Montreal continued for decades after WW II. It seems they closed in or by 1961. I suspect that Krausmann Lorraine Cafe closed for a time, in 1961 or perhaps earlier, since this advertisement in Montreal in 1964 announced a new and revived Krausmann’s in Phillips Square.

I can’t tell if the new Krausmann was in the same building as the original Lorraine Cafe. The civic numbers old and new don’t seem to tally but the Square had been redeveloped since the 1920s and maybe the building numbers changed. Anyway the new operation was still in Phillips Square.

A Mr. Jacques Fauteux was the manager and the menu was Continental, advertising English, German and Swiss dishes. Entertainment was also offered, which reprised the supper club atmosphere of the Phillips Square Krausmann’s in the 20s and 30s. In general a high tone was promised by the upbeat ad. It does not state when the original Krausmann’s stopped operating.

By the 70s, this Krausmann as I recall it had become a middle-class brasserie, primarily a lunch destination, and I don’t recall a band playing by then. The beer offered was similar to that at other taverns and certainly the era of German imports and “light and dark draft beer” proudly advertised in the 1920s had past. But pickled pork hocks were still on the menu, the family tradition of Sarah Krausmann, who was born in Alsace-Lorraine, still casting its long shadow as I apprehend it. And it’s on the Brisket menu today. Perhaps it wasn’t strictly accurate when I said that the dish has been served for 115 years as it seems Krausmann’s stopped operating for a time prior to its post-1964 revival, but it doesn’t matter, the heritage of the dish is long enough and certainly originated in 1901.

My best guess is that different ownership had taken control after the Traymore era ended and likely the Krausmann family has not been involved with the restaurants since the 1930s. Needless to say any readers who can add to this picture are welcome to comment or contact me and I’ll be happy to write a further note on the history.

We tend today to think of food service corporations and restaurant chains as ultra-modern. In fact they go back a century and more. The idea to supply a chain from one set of sources to ensure volume pricing, and manage them from a central location, made no less sense in 1914 than it does now. Traymore was a pioneering operation in Canada in this field.


I’ll leave you with a bittersweet story about Kraussman’s, in this case relating to the Toronto hotel, probably managed in that period by William Krausmann. A German had worked for a time in the hotel, then went home and ended in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army fighting England and its Dominions. In about 1915 during one of those strange moments when opposing forces declared a brief peace and would mingle in no-man’s-land sharing cigars and coffee, Canadian and German forces bantered, then returned to their own lines. As the Canadians entered their trenches, they heard a voice drifting from the German side, “Hey Eddie McDougall, want to run down to Krausmann’s tonight?”.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from this vintage and genealogical postcard site. The second is from John Chuckman’s fine Toronto historical postcards site, here. Both are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See my note in the Comments to Part I added April 1, 2018.


The Krausmann Restaurant Clan of Quebec and Ontario

Further checks allow me to be more precise concerning the history of Krausmann’s Tavern in Montreal. The main points in my last post are correct, but I add below considerable additional detail, including from a beer standpoint.

The Montreal Krausmanns, two brothers, were not from Lorraine in France, or even from Europe. They were from Elora, Ontario. Elora is a charming, small town about 70 miles from Toronto. The patriarch, Andrew (né Andreas) Kraussman, was born in Hesse, Germany in 1844. He immigrated to Ontario and became a successful innkeeper, then hotelier. His wife was Sarah Poutler/Paudler/etc. – spelling varies in different accounts – born a year earlier. Interestingly, she was from Alsace-Lorraine, which may well explain the origin of the name, “Kraussman’s Lorraine Cafe”.


Lorraine in France is mainly French in culture but with some German influence via its Moselle part and the adjoining Alsace has a distinctly Germanic tone to this day.

Lorraine Cafe may have been considered a good name for a German-style restaurant in Montreal given the dual French and German associations. Also, there is a town called Lorraine in Quebec – I was there only two days ago in fact, attending a wedding.

Andrew and Sarah married in Canada in about 1866. The family was Catholic and I mention this simply because I had thought initially the Krausmanns might be old Mennonite stock. That part of Ontario was settled to a large degree by Mennonites of different orders, they came as early as the late 1700s. The Mennonite churches are connected to Anabaptism and the Reformation, so had the Krausmanns been old stock I’d expect them to be Protestant. But Andrew and his wife came to Ontario in the third part of the 19th century.

The family expanded hotel-keeping to Toronto and owned Krausmann Hotel at King and Church Streets – the location is now an empty lot as the building was taken down in 1970.

Most of Andrew and Sarah’s children followed them in the hospitality business. There were five boys. One, Albert, died in 1915 at only 33. Andrew died the same year. John, who had developed the family’s expansion in Toronto, founded Kraussman’s Restaurant in Montreal in 1901, but not in Phillips Square, it was on 80 St. James Street, or Rue St-Jacques, the official name. This was in the old financial and historic quarter of Montreal. As will appear, the cuisine was German and appropriately, John specialized in imported German and Austrian beer. The amusing post card (pre-WW I, probably) shown below includes top international brands of the era.

After almost 30 years in business on St. James Street, John died of a gunshot in February, 1929, perhaps by his own hand. The account in the Montreal Gazette gives numerous details. I don’t know how much longer Kraussman’s on St. James Street continued. Certainly by the 1970s in Montreal, there was only one Krausmann’s, in Phillips Square. John had left no children.


John’s younger brother, William, founded Kraussman’s Lorraine Cafe in Phillips Square in 1922. That restaurant also was a success, but William died of a heart problem in Montreal in 1933. This obituary gives a respectful treatment of his career: he had obviously made a mark on the city, as had John. William left a son, William Jr., and two daughters. Two brothers survived William and John: Andrew junior, and George, who became a noted physician in Detroit, Michigan.

Krausmann descendants continued to reside in Montreal for many decades. Some may have been involved with Krausmann’s in Philips Square in the 1970s, maybe even after it moved south to Beaver Hall Hill in the 1980s. I believe the current ownership of the successor, Brisket, is unconnected.

In November, 1928 in Goblin, a New Yorker-style magazine published in Toronto in the 1920s, a deft portrait is given of the two restaurants, see here. (Blogger John Adcock has given some interesting background on Goblin, here).

The piece was written in the snappy style of the Jazz Age and intended as a guide for American tourists in Montreal. A sample:

The fame of Krausmann’s has gone as far as the pages of “Vanity Fair”, and the sidewalks of Chicago. There’s a place (or rather two places, Krausmann’s on St. James Street and Krausmann’s of Phillips’ Square) that the tourists “do” know. Krausmann’s on St. James Street is the old original, still run by the famous John Krausmann, but both restaurants specialize in the same sort of Teutonic food. Visitors with a culinary background of Hassenpfeffer, Apfelstrudel and other delicacies invariably think Krausmann’s is a wow. The Kasslerripehen at the Phillips’ Square restaurant is excellent. Interesting too, if you care for that sort of thing, are the various kinds of imported German sausages and the enormous plates of pigs’ knuckles and sauerkraut that are served at the bar. Oddly enough, you can’t get Pumperknickel at Krausmann’s. I asked for it one day and was told they stopped baking it during the war and had very few calls for it nowadays.

During the summer, Krausmann’s, St. James Street, has a steady supply of fresh-caught brook trout, which they cook to perfection and serve with “beurre noir”.

Clearly the pig’s knuckles was a house specialty, and would have been since 1901. You can still get it at Brisket today, which occupies the last location of Krausmann’s Tavern, made to the original recipe.* Albeit it flies under the radar these days the dish has been continuously served for 115 years, which must be some kind of record and deserves the renewed attention of Montreal’s food culture.

Brisket’s continues the Krausmann legacy in three ways I can see: first, in its full name, “Brisket Montreal – le Salon Krausmann“. Second, the restaurant features the famed Krausmann pickled pork hocks, so some small part of the original menu survives. Third, Brisket is a “brasserie” which in Montreal means a restaurant serving hearty foods with a good beer selection – Kraussman’s in the 70s was the same concept except continuing to offer the pork hocks as a connection to the past.

The reference to pumperknickel bread in the Goblin story is interesting. I wonder if the restaurants stopped offering it because black bread is an obvious symbol of German cooking and culture. Maybe Krausmann’s wanted to lower an obvious part of its German profile since Canada was fighting Germany in Europe. Yet that war, and indeed the Second War, seemed not to affect the fortunes of these German-Canadian restaurants. On the eve of WW II anyway I know Kraussman’s was still advertising its German menu. Maybe this changed during the 40s though, in fact I think it is likely. By the 70s the menu was mostly Canadian, or such is my recollection after a mere 40 year gap.


Above is an image of the hotel the family operated in Toronto. It is now a parking lot. I drive or walk by it quite often, never having dreamed the site was connected to the Kraussman Tavern I liked so much in Montreal c. 1980. In the same manner, never would have I thought back then that a tavern with an interesting signature dish had such a rich history, going back to swish times in early financial Canada, over to rural Ontario where its founders were born, and stretching finally Alsace-Lorraine, whence the sturdy and tasty porcine specialty of Kraussman’s probably came.

Note re images above: The first, showing the interior of the Phillips Square Krausmann’s mid-1900s, was sourced from this auction page. The second, a postcard showing the St. James Street Krausmann’s (probably pre-1914), was sourced from this ebay page. The third image, of Krausmann Hotel in Toronto c. 1918, was sourced from a Toronto urban history site, here.  All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.



*See my note added April 1, 2018 in the Comments under Part I.

A Classic Montreal Restaurant, Krausmann’s


In the late 1970s I was working in Montreal in a small 1960s tower still standing at 1080 Beaver Hall Hill. The street name harks back to Canada’s fur-trading days. Across the street was a typical Montreal tavern, I can’t recall the name now. It served draft and bottled beer and the tavern food of the era, some of which is still served in Montreal.

This tavern was a large room with small round tables and wooden, round-backed “bankers” chairs. The food included hamburger steak, french fries, french fries and gravy (no cheese, this was before poutine), spaghetti, pizza, and “farmer” sausage. There might also be tourtière and other French-Canadian foods, pig’s feet and meat balls in brown sauce, say. There were also small steaks, sandwiches including a club sandwich, and sometimes chicken or meat croquettes. (Croquettes seem to have disappeared from menus everywhere which is a wrong some retro-minded chef should correct soon).


I remember one waiter there, I think he co-owned the tavern. He was medium-height, slim, of calm disposition, with a pencil moustache. He was clad in a black, tuxedo-type outfit, the uniform of the Montreal tavern waiter then. You see similar dress in illustrations of English Victorian restaurants. Most waiters in Montreal by then were francophone but he was “English”. Nonetheless he spoke perfect French, which was unusual at the time for an “Anglais“. I think he told me he had been a policeman in an earlier career. He was probably 45 at most and could still be living. Like all good waiters he would linger with the clientele to have a chat but was Johnny on the spot when the place was busy.


Beaver Hall Hill is south of what used to be called Dorchester Boulevard, it is now boul. René Lévesque, after the late separatist premier of Quebec. On the other side of Dorchester was and is Phillips Square, originally a high-end shopping enclave which served the gentry and merchant classes who resided nearby. You see the Square pictured in the early image above. That’s King Edward VII in the centre and he is still there.

In 1901, a Mr. Krausmann opened a restaurant on the Square’s east side, it was just outside camera range in that image, where the awning is on the right. The idea was a European cafe with mixed German and French influences which may explain the formal name, the Lorraine Café. By the 1920s and through the second war, Krausmann’s Lorraine Cafe was a noted club venue which specialized in the dinner-and-show, a concept then prevalent in North America.

In the 1970s, I sometimes went to Krausmann’s too, by then it was simply called Krausmann Tavern. I hadn’t known of the 75 year history and glory days as a supper club, it was just a good tavern with a slightly different menu. The star German dish, maybe the only Teutonic specialty by then, was the pickled pork knuckles. Perhaps it was from Lorraine, France, as Mr. Krausmann may have been. (In fact, I once had a similar dish in Stenay, an old garrison town in Lorraine). The shanks were brined and spiced, long boiled, and served with plain boiled potato and sauerkraut. It was very good and the beer of the time, similar to the light but tasty Labatt 50 still sold, suited it.


I left Montreal in 1983. A few years later, Krausmann’s moved from the north side of Dorchester to the south side, taking occupancy in the tavern of the ex-policeman. I never visited that location but knew of the change.

In about 1990, Krausmann’s became Brisket, a restaurant which specializes in Montreal’s famous “smoked meat”, or cured and sliced beef piled high on a sandwich. It’s the Montreal version of the pastrami and corned beef in New York. Smoked meat has Montreal Jewish origins but like the bagel has departed its original precincts to become part of the general food scene.

While pickled pork and smoked meat may seem from different universes, both are cured, carnivores’ specialties. In some ways Brisket was new, but in a certain way, it continued its older heritage.

Yesterday, I was walking down from Phillips Square to Beaver Hall Hill to look at these old haunts and lo, the small Victorian block of buildings which housed the policeman’s tavern, the re-located Kraussman’s, and now Brisket still stands.

Men were doing repairs in the doorway, and when I explained I had eaten there 40 years earlier, they kindly gave me a tour of the inside as it was closed until evening. It looked different than I remembered but the outside and inside have been modified numerous times since the 70s. Back then, small frosted glass panes typically formed the window casements of taverns, to prevent looking inside. This was common for Quebec taverns, and was probably required by law. While the main windows have changed, look at the sidewalk level: the old frosted glass is still there.

The workmen introduced me to one of the principals, he was working in the kitchen. He was delighted to meet someone who had known Krausmann’s. Indeed the name is remembered in the restaurant’s current name, as Le Salon Krausmann is a sub-title of the Brisket name. Not just that, but he told me, rather improbably, that the famous pig’s knuckle dish is still served and follows the original recipe.


That menu (click twice for perfect readability) is a good example of how foods of various national origins can combine to form an area’s preferred eating: you see spaghetti, pig’s feet and meat balls, a Middle Eastern dish or two, hot chicken plate, lots of poutines, and an interesting range of hamburgers. Note the Trappist Poutine, I loved that one!

It’s typical daily fare for Montrealers and Brisket offers pretty much the full gamut. I didn’t get the chance to eat there unfortunately but it is Stop No. 1 the next time I am in Montreal.

Krausmann’s had to have that pig’s knuckle dish on its menu when it opened in 1901. It is now 2016, and the same dish is still served, a hop and skip from the original location. No one has explained this to the Montreal eating public as far as I know. I doubt there are many other if any dishes in Montreal or Canada for that matter served continuously for that long.

You Montreal foodies investigating the new school of this and that – go to Brisket and try its historic pork knuckles: tell them to make it so it comes piping hot, you need to see the steam come out as you open it up. Forget french fries much less poutine with it, you want plain boiled potato and sauerkraut. And cold blonde lager, the house carries Belle Gueule and St-Ambroise beer, that will do just fine.

Note re images: the first image above is in the public domain and was sourced from Wikipedia, here. The last two are from the website of Brisket’s in Montreal, here.



Montreal Notes

Another trip to Montreal, still here and time is short, so some quick notes. I had a Labatt 50 ale yesterday and found it very good with a subtle yet pleasing taste.  I couldn’t detect any adjunct taste and wonder if it is all-malt now. Later, I got down a Heady Topper, my first time with this beer from the influential Alchemist in Vermont (I believe). Very good too in a totally different way.

It may be hard for some to understand that if I had had another macro beer and another, even “name” double IPA, I might have disliked them both quite a bit. It’s not the category, it’s the taste of each that counts.

I also tried today a kvass, which I wrote recently was possibly made by monks who had returned from Russia to a restored Notre Dame de la Trappe in Orne, France in the early 1800s.

I have never had this before, and it’s very good too. The label says it is made from rye bread, barley malt, water and sugar. I would prefer it less sweet but clearly each brand will be different. It has an earthy taste and black colour and may well have been what the derisive-but-non-curious taster was served at La Grande-Trappe back then.

I decided today to eat a Trappist-style lunch. At the place I got the kvass, they had a small cafeteria so I had green pea soup, a slice of brown bread (German-type), a small amount of cheese, and a few swallows of kvass. Nothing wrong with it at all, of course I didn’t work in the fields half a day!

I’ll post images later.

Brewing at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in England, 19th Century


Mount Saint Bernard’s Brewer Rates His Own Product (1890)

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey (MSB) is one of three Cistercian communities in activity in the United Kingdom. The others are Caldey Island in Wales and Abbey Sancta Maria, Nunraw, Scotland. Each is Strict Observance (Trappist).

In Ireland, Mount Melleray Abbey is also Trappist.

None currently conducts any brewing, but MSB had beer in house for much of the 19th century, and I understand is considering restoring brewing. [Brewing has now commenced, see note below in bold].*

MSB is located near Coalville in Leicestershire. A delegation came from Mount Melleray in Ireland to found MSB in the mid-1830s. I have written earlier of Abbaye Notre Dame de Melleray (or Mellerai) in Brittany, France. To summarize a complex history, in 1790 Trappists departed from La Grande-Trappe at Soligny in Orne, Normandy due to the repression of monastic life under the Revolution. They sought refuge initially in Switzerland. Invading French armies forced them to flee, including to Russia and finally Britain.

In 1795 they were given refuge in Lulworth, Dorset by a sympathetic Catholic family. Finally, in 1817, under changed conditions in France, the monks departed Lulworth to found Melleray Abbey in Brittany. Recurring anti-clerical measures in France forced the monks to leave France again, and they established Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland as successor.

In this process of constant migration and re-establishment of Trappist life, Westmalle Abbey was founded by monks who intended originally to re-settle in Canada. Melleray Abbey in Brittany, and also the original home of the Strict Observance, la Grande-Trappe in Normandy (Notre Dame de la Trappe), were re-established finally by other faithful on a permanent footing. All indeed have continued to the present date, however the Trappists in France’s Melleray will depart the monastery later this year due to declining numbers. Other Trappist abbeys in Belgium are connected as well to this history, as are a number in North America. All are an outgrowth of the repression of monasticism by the French Revolution and later Napoleon.

Just as a reminder, both La Grande-Trappe and Abbaye Melleray in Brittany brewed beer. The French Melleray, founded by monks who departed Lulworth and some of whom were British, brewed on the English system – this is amply documented, which I discussed in earlier posts. While little is known about the beer they made, I would think it was probably all-barley malt. In the early 1800s beer in England generally was so, whether produced by commercial breweries or in manors or universities. Melleray’s beer probably resembled one of the grades of English mild ale then available, all rather strong in those days. If strong beer, it would have been diluted for drinking at refectory. It is possible, too, that Abbaye Melleray made a mixed-grain beer – this might depend on what the farm at the domain grew.

I would think records might be available at Melleray today in Ireland or indeed still in France to indicate how the Lulworth arrivals brewed in Brittany once established there.

As for La Grande-Trappe, almost certainly its beer was low-alcohol. Normandy had an old brewing heritage derived from Viking invaders, which partly was displaced by cider-making in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, beer continued to be made in the region including by some abbeys and certainly was available at La Grande Trappe after Abbé de Rancé did his groundbreaking reformatory work. In fact, initially only cider was used but some fathers found cider didn’t suit them, and in any case was not always available. Abbé de Rancé, wishing not to have recourse to wine, commanded that a brewery be installed, as confirmed in this 1866 history of the legendary abbot and the Trappists.

Dieulouard Abbey in Lorraine, an English Benedictine establishment, brewed beer for almost 200 years before the French Revolution with high repute for taste and strength. It was probably served to the fathers in a low-alcohol version or was diluted – an 1890s source I cited earlier said the beer “supported dilution”. Just as today the Trappist monasteries don’t serve their strong specialties to the fathers, in former times the fathers likewise did not drink strong beer. If they did drink at all, a weaker version was available for daily use.

I explain all this as, in terms of what 19th-century monks drank at MSB, we should not expect necessarily to encounter unmixed (so to speak) reports. This is particularly so if, as seems the case, MSB offered only one beer, which surely was weak in alcohol. It is true Westmalle in Belgium excelled from the starting block in the brewing arts, but this may have been an exception, or it made strong beer mainly for guests and sale at the abbey gate.

So what did visitors say of MSB beer?

Here are the details in a reversed chronology, obtained from original research. In an article describing a visit to MSB in 1890 entitled An English Monastery, published originally in the magazine All The Year Round, the (un-credited) author asks his host what the fathers eat. The answer is, bread, vegetable soup, boiled rice, jam (“to help the rice go down”) and “a cup of beer”. To the reply “then you are not teetotalers?”, the father states dryly, “The beer is not exactly double X, you know”. Apart from the amusing subtext, one can deduce the beer was weak, in line with the tradition I explained.

The second statement, by a visitor who drank the ale with the monks in 1872, was that the beer was “most indifferent”. This can be read to mean weak again. Of course it is possible the visitor, who seemed rather supercilious by the tone of his piece, meant it was sour or tasted bad, but I don’t think likely that was meant.

A further statement is from our friend who authored the memoir of Antwerp I discussed in my previous post. In this book he includes a parenthetical entry on MSB which he had visited with a friend in March 1847. He states (at pg. 150) that he found the beer of “purity and excellence” along with the various foods served. He uses the term “home produce” to describe all these items but clearly he meant the produce of MSB, not of England or the U.K. in general.


Now, true enough MSB’s beer could have changed over the decades, but I consider finally that it was fairly low in alcohol but otherwise sound. If the beer was small beer of 1% or 2% abv, it probably didn’t taste great. Some reading who are familiar with non-alcoholic beer may see what I mean (useful as that article is, sometimes). Possibly the MSB beer was 3-4% abv, this at a time when ales and porter started at 5% and went up from there, but I incline that it was quite weak: see above the c.1900 ad for Mont des Cats table beer, this may well have been the kind of beer MSB brewed.

An odd thing is that a few accounts of visits to MSB make no reference to beer or other alcohol at all. One describes the only beverage available as water. Maybe MSB brewed at some times and not others, or in some years and not others, it is hard to say.

I am not clear when brewing was abandoned at MSB, I’d think prehaps before the First World War. I hope MSB does make its own beer again one day. This would be salutary from a number of standpoints, while to be sure it’s a decision to be carefully thought. If MSB commences brewing, I would suggest it make an ale from all-English materials including the yeast. I wouldn’t use a Belgian yeast, in particular. Making a traditional English ale would honour much of the history in question: it was English brewing skill that was deployed at Melleray’s brewery in France in 1817. And English Benedictines brought similar skills to Dieulouard Abbey in Lorraine, as I discussed here, and made English-style ale the renown of Lorraine for almost 200 years.

Further, the “Belgian taste” is familiar in the market today from the numerous Trappist beers, and other beers in that style, available in the market. I would do something different, strictly English, in particular, and no American hops. This seems consistent with early MSB brewing history.

Finally, as to alcohol, I would make a fairly rich beer at 5% or 6% abv. 7% seems rather high, anyhow Ampleforth Abbey is currently filling that niche nicely. If the MSB monks will drink the beer and 5%-6% is felt too high, it can always be diluted with 50% sparkling water. There is historical precedent for monastic beer to “take” water in this fashion, as mentioned above.

Note re images: This first image above is from the website of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, linked in the first sentence of the text above. The second image appeared in this news storyin the Catholic journal La Croix regarding issuance of a beer in 2011 by Mont des Cats Trappist monastery in France. It shows a “table beer”, thus with no or very little alcohol, marketed when Mont des Cats abbey had a working brewery onsite c.1900. Images are believed available for historical or educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.





An English Visitor Renders High Praise to Westmalle’s Beer, 1847

Hello Moeder, Hello Vader

George Podesta wrote in 1853 that Westmalle Abbey made the best beer in Belgium. Some may think that was a one-off, or fluke, but a book written six years earlier by an Englishman said the same thing. It chronicled an extended visit to Antwerp which took in also Westmalle Abbey and Brussels. The Englishman was writing only 11 years after the fathers commenced brewing operations in 1836.

The book is Antwerp. A Journal Kept ThereWhile running over 200 pages, it is anonymous, as was frequently the custom then for this type of writing. The author was well-born, and I’d guess in his 20s judging by the context. He indicated that he traveled in company with relations who were a “lady and gentleman”, possibly his parents. The book is not a travel guide of the Frommer or Lonely Planet type, nor is it a formal economic or historical study. Essentially it is travel literature.

Almack's_Assembly_Rooms_insideThere are many interesting nuggets. He wrote that well-born visitors invited to dance at balls were introduced to young ladies as potential partners. So popular were the ladies’ services, they would note the request in a “memorandum“, and frequently respond (I paraphrase), “I can’t do it Thursday, not Friday either, maybe Saturday, I’ll get back to you”. Another interesting remark is a story he relates of a friend travelling with his Yorkshire-born servant in nearby Holland. The friend calls for the man to attend him, but he is nowhere to be found. When he searches the hotel where they were staying, the tardy valet is finally located, he is among a group of “hotel people” (Hollanders), regaling them with funny stories and all laughing up a storm in Dutch.

The astonished master asks him, “How do you know Dutch?”. The attendant responds, “Sir, I never larned nothing of the sort, but bless ye, Sir, it’s nothing but bad Yorkshire”. The author of Antwerp goes on to give a short list of English and Dutch words to show many are essentially the same, e.g., mother is moeder. (Moeder sounds the way someone from Brooklyn, NY would pronounce mother – but then the Dutch founded New York…).

Anyway, the author of Antwerp was blown away by Westmalle’s beer. Here is what he said:

The dinner then on the table consisted of potatoes, Brussels sprouts – a delicious vegetable – eggs, brown bread cut into very thin slices, butter, cheese, and beer, all excellent of their kind, particularly the beer, which is the best I have tasted in Belgium.

On this trip as I said, he spent considerable time in Antwerp, and therefore surely tasted brown barley beer and probably other kinds. He also frequented Brussels, where he would have tried sour beers and possibly others again. So while he didn’t have the familiarity George Podesta had of Belgium – Podesta was an Italian-born writer who called Belgium his second home and had written of the country earlier – his opinion must be given weight. This is especially so because it came from an English pen and the English knew beer, especially then.

Note re image above: This Victorian ballroom illustration is in the public domain and was sourced here. It is believed available for historical or educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Did Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Trappe Serve Bad Beer In the 1800s? (No)

Fermenting_kvassTrappist and Benedictine brewing disclosed a high level of competence in the pre-Revolutionary era and through the 19th century with the restoration of the monasteries and brewing in Belgium and France. Earlier, I discussed the high repute among English and French-speaking observers which Westmalle’s beers had within a generation of brewing starting in 1836. 

I mentioned that Chimay’s beer, at an impressive 7.2% alcohol, was included in an 1877 Belgian journal which measured alcohol and other analytics of contemporary beers. I discussed Dieulouard brewery’s beer in the 1890s, formerly made in the same brewery by English Benedictines. English ecclesiastic tasters – thus permit them an appropriate reticence – found the beer dark and strong with no negative mentions such as sourness.

I mentioned that Melleray abbey in Brittany started up brewing under English auspices in 1817, and only good things can be deduced from the accounts.

An 1853 visitor to Mont des Cats abbey on the French side of the Belgian frontier called the abbey’s brewing “good light beer” and said it “does no little credit to their brewer”.

The fact that these mentions survive at all from the 19th century is quite remarkable, and suggests a broader pattern of high quality throughout the abbey brewing world. This isn’t surprising when one considers that monastic brewing was instrumental in spreading the taste for good beer in Europe after about 800 A.D. Abbey brewing started to decline with the recurring problems monasteries encountered in various religious wars and the rise of secular brewing, but endured into the Revolutionary era in France.

Dieulouard abbey’s brewing, c. 1608- c.1790, was especially noted in this regard. Some German abbeys as well continued to brew concurrently with great skill, of which some evidence exists to this day.

I discussed also Abbaye Notre Dame de Bonne Espérance in the 1890s, in Dordogne, France. Its beer did not please the visitor who wrote about it, but this was due to its (for him) unusual yellow colour and thick unfiltered (“new”) character. There is no reason to think it was sour, or ill-brewed in any other way.

So when you read of apparently duff abbey beer it tends to jar the senses. To be sure, any brewery can make an off-product, it happens to the best of them. But taking all with all, one wouldn’t expect to read this comment from a visitor to La Grande Trappe in Soligny la Trappe, Orne, Normandy:

Our repast consisted of bread, butter, milk, herbs, and fruit; our beverage was equally simple, and far less palatable, being a liquid somewhat like a `half-and-half` mixture of ditch-water and purest Day and Martin in appearance, and in taste resembling nothing so much as `flat` beer, rendered tart by injudicious doses of vinegar.

The account is from a story in National Magazine in 1856, it appeared as well in other journals. I believe it originated in Tate’s Magazine, based in Edinburgh, in 1853. Day and Martin was a boot polish.


The anonymous author, probably Tait, was anti-clerical, indeed anti-religious. His piece is rather scathing, often supercilious, and perhaps was intended not to cast a positive light on any aspect of abbey life, which he painted as unremittingly bleak and devoid even of the spiritual solace it was designed to secure its community. Still, let’s take what he said at face value. The real question is, was he talking about beer?

He doesn’t call what he drank beer as such: he says it tasted somewhat like flat beer that was sour. If it was beer, one would think he would have called it that. He refers to no brewing or a brewery at Notre Dame de la Trappe. While it is true that La Grande Trappe, as it is also known, the founding monastery of what became (officially in 1892) the Trappist order, brewed in its pre-Revolutionary heyday, there is no evidence that it brewed after its restoration from 1815.

In this fascinating 1895 article by Aleide Bonneau describing the abbey, published in a French magazine the Revue Universelle, not a word is mentioned about brewing. The article mentions all the ancillary activities of la Grande Trappe including its chocolaterie, but there no mention of beer, brewing, or any alcohol. It is impossible that the author would have missed this. He describes in detail what we would call an open-doors day, where the abbey allowed people through the porter`s gate to view the buildings and the monks. On the grounds were set up numerous “boutiques” where chocolate and other things were sold to raise money for the abbey’s orphanage. If bottles of beer were sold, the article would have mentioned it.

Readers interested in life in an 1800s monastery might click on the link because the article contains a number of very rare photos, indeed for any period. The monks’ dormitory is shown, a series of small rooms partitioned, almost like a college dorm except each is fully open to the corridor. The monks are shown working in a field, in full white vestments. In this case they stare at the camera, which is contrary to what you normally read, that they pay no or as little attention as possible to visitors. A drawing shows the monks dining in the refectory. Intriguingly, each has a set of bottles in front of him, one of which appears to be corked. But whether it contained beer is unknown.

caviar_prd_284_orgIf the beverage Tait disdained wasn’t beer, what was it? I offer two possibilities. The first is, it was kvass, the East European drink made from stale bread which generally is only lightly alcoholic.

One thing a Trappist monastery always had in abundance unless in extremis was bread. The bread in French monasteries wasn’t like our whole grain bread, not to mention the white Weston bread I had with eggs this morning. No, it was pain bis, a rough country bread made in huge loaves from rye or mixed grains and brown-to-black in colour.

Bread that had gone stale – what do you do with it? You can make kvass, a traditional drink in Russia and Ukraine and extensively consumed in the east. You just add water and let it ferment a bit, sometimes various flavours are added. I will aver that, having checked, I can find no evidence a drink like this was ever consumed in Normandy (nor did I find evidence a black, porter-like beer was ever made – to the contrary).

But bear in mind, monks had returned to France after 1815 who had spent time in exile far afield, including … Russia. They may have brought the idea from there as a quick way to make a lightly alcoholic, beer-like drink. Tait’s taste note – you can say that without tripping after four glasses of kvass, but don’t try it after one of Rochefort’s strongest – sounds a lot like kvass, which can be black as night, earthy, and is always partly sour.

If it wasn’t kvass, it may have been a coffee substitute, chicory, which was grown in France in the 1800s and used as a poor man’s coffee (that’s how it came to New Orleans). Chicory coffee can be sourish too especially to an unaccustomed palate.

But it wasn’t beer, okay? The Trappists don’t do bad beer.

Note re images: the first image shown, of kvass in preparation, is in the public domain and was sourced here. Attribution is as follows: By Edmund Schluessel (Sanyo S750i) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The second image, of La Grande Trappe, is from this French website which markets reproduction of postcards, here.  The third, of a Russian-style black bread, is from House of Petrossian in Paris, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



A Beer Fan Compares Westmalle Trappist To Other Belgian Beers – In 1853


In Essai sur la Campine Anversoise, 1853, by George Podesta, which I referred to yesterday, Podesta described Westmalle Abbey’s beer as “the best in Belgium”. He also made further comments, which I will discuss here, which illuminate what Westmalle’s beer was.

He wrote (my translation), at pp. 64-65:

I have said the good fathers brew the best beer in the kingdom. Taste it, and you will prefer it by far to the rich faro of the capital, to the barley beer of the region which is always somewhat vinegary, to the bland and insipid beer of Louvain, and even to the beer of Diest which advised drinkers consider equal to the heady lambic of the capital.

This 163-year-old taste note, written by someone who was evidently a discriminating beer drinker, helps us to understand what Westmalle’s beer was like. We can deduce a number of things: first, it wasn’t sour. Podesta tells us squarely that the area’s barley beer – Antwerp and region’s brown barley malt style – was always somewhat sour. Numerous other sources of the mid-1800s confirm this. His reference to faro being rich or sumptuous is probably a reference to its sugary quality. Faro was and is a wild-fermented, malted barley-and-raw wheat beer, mid-gravity, 4% abv, approximately. Numerous sources say it was sour too but the sugar took the edge off.

Louvain had two types of beer (at least) and the one Podesta mentioned was clearly the “blanche” – a wheated style not dissimilar probably to the Hoegaarden type you can buy at many bars around the world today. I agree with Podesta that a blanche can be bland – it was considered mostly a summer refresher in the 1800s, not a cold weather drink. Louvain white may have tasted like Blanche de Chambly in Quebec, or Anchor Brewery’s wheated beer.

Podesta places Diest beer higher on the scale, with Brussels lambic, and the reason is evidently strength. These could attain 6% abv, maybe a bit more. Diest beer was rich-tasting – one source says “thick and sweet”, and could be sweet-sour as well. Diest used a lot of wheat in the mash, which probably gave it a sharp edge. A modern dark weizen of Germany, if you added a dollop of sugar, might approximate what Diest was.

So what more can we reasonably infer about Westmalle’s beer? It was not notably sweet like faro and Diest. It wasn’t bland like white beer. And it was reasonably strong, “heady” (“capiteux”), like lambic was and Diest too.

I would think Westmalle beer in 1853 – three years before the brown dubbel was produced – was either an all-barley beer – even though the abbey appears not to have grown barley in the 1850s – or a mixed-grain type, but in either case about 6% abv. And again, not sour, not sugary, not bland like a wheat beer. It was probably dark in colour, but this is unknown.

The fact that Podesta found Westmalle’s beer so good is notable given the generally poor reputation Belgian beer had internationally. This early Baedeker travel guide to Belgium mentions, see pg. 68, numerous of the beers mentioned above except for Trappist. It states Belgian beer will generally be “unpalatable” to visitors. The reason is, as many other observers noted, the sourness of most Belgian beer. It was therefore noteworthy that Westmalle’s beer was not sour. No other Trappist or monastic beer I have read of, so far, was sour.

Since monastics, especially Cistercians, were expert brewers and formed an international community with links to eminent brewing nations such as England and Germany, it is reasonable to infer that their beer was never sour and perhaps all-barley malt or reliant on barley for its quality. The strain of Trappist brewing in France and environs influenced by England would have favoured, at least from the 1600s onward, barley malt and no sourness. And we know there was significant English brewing expertise deployed in France in the 1600s-1800s, notably at the Dieulouard and Melleray abbeys.

I’ve said it before, but monks setting up brewing in Belgium were unlikely to borrow expertise and recipes from the next village. That is not how monastic endeavour worked. In many ways, Cistercian and Trappist communities functioned like a modern international corporation. Knowledge and techniques developed by the older abbeys, based on the primal text of St. Benedict and elaborated by his followers, were applied to set up and run the newer, albeit self-governing, monasteries.

As Jane Grigson whom I quoted not long ago wrote in relation to the network of Cistercian abbeys in Britain, the fathers came in with a well-defined plan to establish farming, other industry, and monastic life. This reflected a good measure of central planning and execution. Quentin Skrabec, Jr.’s remarks, in his book on Benedictine business success, are illuminating in this regard. By the 1400s, he says the abbeys were dominant in Europe, not just in brewing, but in many other industries, everything from forging to textiles to coal-mining.

We know cheese-making followed this plan – the Port Salut model is still “the” Trappist type of cheese. Why would brewing have been any different? Belgian Trappist and abbey beers today are strong, malty, not sour, well-hopped. Village beers, in contrast, often were weak, used grains other than barley, and were sour, sweet, or both. Trappist ale was never local and even today there are only really two styles amongst them: dubbel and tripel.  (Or if you will, top-fermented, barley-based blonde and brown beers in different strengths). Orval is something of an outlier, but even then is not a wheat beer, not sour, reliant on barley malt, well-hopped. Close enough.

A pattern emerges…

I will take the point that grains produced by a particular farm in a Trappist community may have influenced the mash-bill for its beer. Somewhere, a text must exist which guided the expansion of monastic brewing in Europe, maybe in Latin. One day it will emerge to public view and it will be interesting to read what it says.

Note re image: The image of a painting of St. Benedict giving his Rule to his followers is in the public domain and was sourced here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.